Why Won't My Partner Open Up? 7 Ways To Help A Partner Who Is Emotionally Repressed
Going through a period when you and your partner can't quite seem to connect emotionally can be difficult for any relationship. But if your partner is emotionally repressed, the disconnect can be even greater.
"Being emotionally repressed means that you have difficulty connecting to both your feelings and the feelings of others," Kat Vollono, LMSW, a licensed psychotherapist and breath work facilitator specializing in holistic mental health approaches, tells Bustle. "It is common aftermath of childhood traumas such as bullying, abusive caretakers, mismatched environment, or even just being more sensitive than others and being regularly told that they are being 'too sensitive,'" she says. Many people stop connecting as deeply to their emotions as a way to protect themselves from the world.
Emotional repression can manifest in your partner in a number of different ways. For example, they might have a hard time sharing strong emotions or making themself vulnerable, Vollono says. They could also get angry when you ask them how they are feeling, or have a hard time determining what emotion is truly behind their anger, such as sadness, shame, fear, or jealousy. It can be hard to know how to help a partner who's going through this, but having a better understanding of what emotional repression is and how to support someone who's experiencing it can give you some peace of mind.
Here's how to support a partner who is emotionally repressed, according to experts.
1. Validate Them
"Partners who are emotionally repressed may have gotten that way because they grew up in an invalidating environment," Christine Scott-Hudson, MA, MFT, ATR, a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in creative healing and art therapy, and owner of Create Your Life Studio, tells Bustle. "If your partner grew up hiding any signs of emotion in order to stay physically or emotionally safe, you can help them by being validating when they do reveal any vulnerable emotion." If they open up about a friend who's hurt their feelings or tell you that something you said really bothered them, resist the urge to tell them that they're overreacting. Instead, tell them that it's OK to feel that way and that you're there to listen.
2. Ask Them About Their Childhood
If your partner is emotionally repressed, it's likely that their childhood had a lot to do with that. It might be a sensitive subject so don't push them, but let them know that you're there to listen to their difficult stories, Vollono says. Were they bullied as a child? Did their caretakers yell at them? Was there a major life trauma? If your partner grew up being told that they shouldn't cry or that they should be strong enough to take care of the people around them, they might still feel that way today, so knowing where they're coming from can help you know how to support them now.
3. Let Them Know They Are Safe
"A big aspect of being emotionally repressed is a core belief that they are not safe to express their feelings or appear vulnerable," Vollono says. "If you are able to communicate to them that they are safe and they can trust you, they may be able to start opening up more." Keep in mind that they might not feel free to express themselves verbally, she says. Instead, they might feel safer writing you letters about their feelings, drawing pictures that express how they're feeling, or even playing music that shows how they're feeling. However they choose to open up, make sure they understand that they can trust you fully.
4. Encourage Them To Seek Professional Help
No matter how validating and encouraging you are, unless you're a mental health professional, you probably won't be able to give your partner all of the help that they need to work through their emotional repression. "Meet with a couples therapist or encourage them to try a body-based practice such as breath work or somatic experiencing," Vollono says. "Work with the therapist to help your partner understand the way their emotions exist in the body," she says. For example, having butterflies in your stomach can mean that you are nervous, and feeling a heaviness in your heart can mean that you are sad.
5. Tell Them What You Need From Them
Even though you want to be there to support your partner as they work through emotional repression, you need to make sure to look out for your own mental health at the same time. "Communicate your expectations of them, and be reasonable about what you are OK with," Vollono says. If you feel like you're someone who needs a partner who will tell you how they are feeling, tell them that. It may be difficult for them to open up, but you can work together on strategies that might work for you. For example, maybe they need to take some time to process a conversation or argument before coming back to you to tell you how the situation made them feel.
6. Understand Their Reactions
It's important to know how your partner's emotional repression might manifest in your relationship so that you can identify what's a reflection of the fact that they're emotionally repressed and what's just their personality. "They may present as shut down, or unwilling to engage if you bring up an issue," Scott-Hudson says. "Their real feelings may come out as sarcasm rather than directly explaining where they are coming from and how they feel." But if they grew up with emotionally repressed and invalidating parents, they might not even know what they feel, she says. So if you ask your partner if they're angry with you or hurt by something you said and they tell you that they don't know, they might not be being dismissive, but could be being absolutely honest.
7. Be Patient
Because you love your partner, you deeply want to help them connect with their feelings and encourage them to express themself to you. Don't get discouraged if it takes some time for this to happen. It probably took years for them to learn to keep their emotions to themself, so it will take a while to unlearn that instinct. "They wanted to be with you because you mirrored something that they desired to have more of in their life," Vollono says. "Let that empower you. Move intentionally, gently, and with care, and with time your partner will be able to learn to communicate with you."
It can be difficult to go through a relationship with a partner who's dealing with emotional repression. But with patience, kindness, and professional help, they can learn how to express themself fully.